Resilient Azarenka rises to occasion

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It felt in some ways like a discordant, minor-key finish to a major. But the trophy is just as shiny.

World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka walked into Rod Laver Arena to defend her Australian Open title knowing the best she could expect from the crowd was ambivalence, thanks to the controversial medical timeout she took at a critical juncture in her semifinal against surging young American Sloane Stephens. Azarenka took a thrashing in both social media and the mainstream press as her motives were widely second-guessed.

Fans cheered her missed shots and double faults and greeted her winners tepidly while urging on underdog Li Na of China, who likely would have been their darling anyway thanks to the impressive game and improvisational comedy genius she has displayed for the past two weeks.

Yet the resolute Azarenka may as well have played the whole match with ear buds in. Her ability to shut out the static helped her overcome the only person who counted, the sixth-seeded Li, in an error-prone 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory that was as much about attrition as competition.

"I knew what I had to do,'' said Azarenka, who added that she had "expected way worse" from the crowd.

"I had to stay calm. I had to stay positive. I just had to deal with the things that came onto me. And that's pretty much it.

"I was actually really happy that I went through so many things knowing that I can still produce the tennis that I can and keep the focus that I can. It just motivates me to be a better player."

The 23-year-old from Belarus rose to the occasion. Or perhaps, given the combined 85 unforced errors, 16 breaks of serve and two indisputably legitimate medical timeouts taken by her opponent in the match, it would be more accurate to say she rose above it. Relief, rather than elation, flooded her face when a backhand miss by Li ended things.

After the two women clasped hands over the net, Azarenka walked to her bench and sobbed into a towel, her shoulders quaking, then made her way to the courtside seats where she clasped hands with coach Samuel Sumyk and DJ boyfriend RedFoo. The win also preserved her top ranking, which would have passed to Serena Williams if Azarenka had lost.

Sumyk said the tears were understandable given the emotional discipline Azarenka had been forced to practice over the previous 48 hours.

"I guess that gives you a little bit the level of difficulty, how difficult it was to earn that trophy again,'' Sumyk said, adding that he'd never seen Azarenka deal with that much negativity from the stands.

"But you still got to go out there and do your job the best as possible,'' he said. "And I think she did that … she's solid.

In developments that would have verged on the satirical if they hadn't been slightly scary, Li twice tumbled going to her backhand side, rolling her ankle midway through the second set and banging her head on the court in the third immediately after play resumed following a 10-minute break for a fireworks display celebrating Australia's national holiday.

Azarenka showed concern for Li both times the 2011 French Open champion fell, but went about the business of staying loose and hit some practice serves.

The first incident necessitated heavy taping and the second a careful check for concussion symptoms. Li later said she blacked out for a couple of seconds. But the consistency that served her so well -- no pun intended -- in her semifinal rout of No. 2 Maria Sharapova deserted her even before the mishaps and Li didn't want to blame them for the result.

"Maybe if I'm not falling down, it's another story,'' Li said. "You never know. But the truth, I was falling down, so nothing can change.

"I think today in like important games she was play[ing] better than me, so that's why she can win the title.''

The irrepressible, quick-witted Li joked through her postmatch press conference, alternating between self-deprecation and hilarious one-liners. Inevitably, one reporter raised the subject of Azarenka's much-debated timeout, which appeared to many fans and analysts to be an excuse to calm her clearly rattled nerves. (Azarenka maintained she needed treatment for a "locked" rib that was preventing her from breathing properly.)

True to form, Li defused the polemic, interrupting the reporter to say of her own medical breaks, "Hey, this is real injury.''

Azarenka's determined play made seven-time Grand Slam champion and tennis commentator Mats Wilander look prescient. The day before the match, Wilander spoke to Azarenka and found her in good spirits. "She's very resilient,'' he said. "She really doesn't have any choice. It's now her against the world, which is not a bad thing.''

Azarenka said she considered what transpired during and after semifinal "a learning experience.''

"Well, I learned how to talk a lot on TV,'' she said, drawing laughter from reporters. "Way more than any win I ever got.

"But, you know, it's just a pressure of something that you have to explain. You have to keep going, kind of make everybody believe you, because nobody did at the beginning. Just trying to be honest really for about a hundred times in a row.''

Kamakshi Tandon contributed to this story.